In Norway, people don’t commit suicide more frequently than in other countries. (Indeed, the nation has one of the lower rates in the West, significantly below the U.S., France, and that current capital of self-slaughter, Lithuania.) But perhaps they off themselves more inscrutably. Certainly, that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the four enigmatic suicides portrayed in Ibsen/Fosse, a diptych of Norwegian plays featuring Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm of 1886 and Jon Fosse’s contemporary drama deathvariations. Produced by Oslo Elsewhere—who oversaw last season’s Night Sings Its Songs, Fosse’s New York debut—this Norwegian double feature offers fresh translations of each play. According to the advertising materials, the works ostensibly ask, “Is fate inescapable, or do we create our own destinies?”
While attendance at either play is hardly a fate audiences would pray escape, neither is entirely successful as an exercise in translation or existential exploration. In interviews, Sarah Cameron Sunde, who translated and directs deathvariations, and Anna Guttormsgaard, who translated and stars in Rosmersholm, have called for adaptations that render foreign text into American idiom. It’s a daunting task, one neither woman wholly achieves. While an interview indicates that Guttormsgaard has opted to set her version (completed with the aid of Bridgette Wimberly and Oda Radoor) in contemporary America, that’s utterly unapparent save that a menu includes chicken and dumplings with biscuits and that the housekeeper uses a Swiffer. In deathvariations, Sunde hasn’t conjured a stateside equivalent for the Norwegian ja. The ya or yeah that the actors must interject—almost convulsively—into their speeches disrupts the flow of the language and sounds distinctly foreign, a contravention of Sunde’s goals.
Deathvariations concerns elderly parents contending with their daughter’s drowning. As they converse, they watch scenes of their younger selves and of their daughter’s interactions with a mysterious friend who may represent death. Fosse is a parsimonious writer, allowing only a few words at a time to surface—rarely resorting to synonym when repetition will do or to complete sentence when phrase will suffice. Such oblique pronouncements ought to have a firm grounding in everyday emotion and gesture, but director Sunde can’t resist rendering them mysteriously, relying on multihued light effects and eerie music. The cast, especially Natalia Payne as the Daughter and Dick Hughes as the Older Man, manage some affecting moments, yet they rarely let us inside these characters. Though he gives an unobjectionable performance, the sturdy Charles Borland seems miscast as the Friend, less dangerous seducer than creepy neighbor, rendering the girl’s suicide that much more inexplicable.
Rosmersholm plays out on the same schematic set as deathvariations—a silhouette of a house backed by a scrim—though the stage has gained an assortment of wooden furniture and dusty flower arrangements. After his wife plunges into a waterfall, former pastor John Rosmer and artist Rebecca West attempt to adopt a new, freer ethical code. They wish to act, as Rosmer puts it, “from their own belief, not from the rules of society. A belief in morality beyond religion, beyond the law.” In Ibsen’s original, much of the conflict centered on the censorship of texts and ideas—an idea alas too current to need much updating. Though that aspect still resounds, much of the rest of the play, directed by Timothy Douglas, feels unsure as to whether it is a period piece or an update. Characters slide in and out of contemporary behavior and conversation. Questions of innocence, will, and desire warrant much discussion, but the unconventionality of Rosmer and Rebecca’s relationship, accentuated by the casting of the African American actor Charles Parnell as Rosmer and the Norwegian-born Guttormsgaard as Rebecca, is given short shrift.
Still, performed in repertory, the plays do possess some intriguing resonances, and New York theater is not so rich in Scandinavian entrants that these additions shouldn’t be attended. Yet with the examples of several characters fresh in mind, we can’t quite advocate diving right in.